In China, longer maternity leave is a tough sell

Society & Culture

New policies aimed at encouraging childbirth include longer mandated maternity leave, but many women aren’t happy.

Anthony Devlin/Reuters

In one of many initiatives attempting to reverse declines in fertility, several Chinese city and provincial governments have recently extended maternity leave. This seems like a positive development, but the response on Chinese social media has been overwhelmingly negative, with many women expressing fear that the prolonged time off would make it harder for them to get hired or promoted. 

Under Shanghai’s revised regulations (in Chinese), women are given an extra 60 days of paid maternity leave, in addition to the 96 days stipulated by China’ Provisions on the Labor Protection of Female Employees. Beijing implemented the same increase of days and adopted a new rule that grants couples five days of “parenting leave” every year before their children turn three. 

In the eastern province of Zhejiang, women are entitled to 188 days of paid leave when having their second or third children. Similar benefits also apply to women in Hebei and Shaanxi, who are now given longer maternity leaves after their first children. In a more progressive move, Chongqing announced a new family leave policy this month, which allows one parent of a newborn — either mother or father — to take leave for an entire year if his or her employer permits. 

There hasn’t been much change for fathers, though. Paid paternity leave stays the same at 15 days in Beijing and 10 days in Shanghai. The most generous policies for new dads are from Henan and Gansu, where paid parental leave for men has been extended to 30 days.

The collective push for better maternity benefits was prompted by the central government. In June, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, signaled that the central government wanted local officials to design and experiment with more policies and services supporting new parents. The news came shortly after a major policy revision which allows married couples to have up to three children, marking a further relaxation of birth limits after China abandoned its infamous one-child policy in 2015. 

Chinese authorities have been scrambling to find a fix for the country’s declining birth rates, which — coupled with its shrinking workforce and aging population — could significantly slow the country’s economic growth and impair its pension system. The gravity of the situation was starkly illustrated in China’s latest statistical yearbook. Released this month by the National Bureau of Statistics, the annual publication showed that China’s birth rate had dropped for a fourth consecutive year in 2020, making a new low in over four decades.

In theory, the new maternity policies should be popular among Chinese women. But on Chinese social media, most observers said that the prolonged leave was a bad idea because by targeting only one gender, as opposed to neutral benefits like paid vacation days and paid family leave, the reform only served to reinforce the traditional view that women shoulder the lion’s share of housework and caregiving. 

Others were concerned that without accompanying policies to guarantee job security and fair opportunities, working mothers might face discrimination when returning from their maternity leave as some companies frown upon employees taking advantage of the policy. They also speculated that some employers might show bias against young women in hiring because one day they may become mothers.